Reasons to doubt
The first night was awkward. Unna begged off sharing Bo’s bed, opting instead to share a small pile of furs by the fire with Alfiva. It was still early in the spring, and the nights were chill yet. If Bo minded, or even recognized it as anything other than maternal concern, he did not mention it.
At first Unna hoped the stilted conversations and side-glances were just a symptom of being complete and utter strangers. Things would improve as they got to know each other. Or so she told herself. As the weeks dragged on Unna was plagued with doubt. Her new husband showed little interest in wanting to get to know her in any capacity. He barely seemed to even notice the care with which she kept his house or the quality of the food she placed upon his table.
The one thing he did notice with Alfiva.
It quickly became apparent that he utterly loathed the child. His black looks would follow her as she moved around the cottage at chores or at play. The expression upon his face as he watched Alfiva made Unna’s blood run cold. He never raised a hand to the girl. Never even spoke to her if he could help it. Yet Unna couldn’t help but fear the look in his eyes or the rate at which their supplies of ale and mead began to vanish.
“I don’t like the new husband,” the tomte complained. It was perched on a branch in a birch tree, high above Björg’s head. “And I especially don’t like that iron door latch of his. I have to crawl in through a window, I do. Beneath my dignity.”
Björg barely heard a word the tomte said. Her attention was focused on the cottage across the clearing where Alfiva was chasing a cricket around the yard the tomte had sent to amuse her.
“Of all the single men in the world,” Björg muttered, somewhat bitterly. What twist of fate was it that Alfiva should be brought right back to the scene of her near murder? Right back into the life of a man willing to leave his child alone to die in the freezing cold at his cruel wife’s behest. What pain would it bring Unna to find that she was lying in the bed upon which Alfiva had been born and her birth mother had died?
“Eh, are you listening at all?” the tomte asked sharply, snapping Björg out of the solitude of her thoughts.
“I’m sorry, good Tomte. I was just distracted watching Alfiva.”
“I don’t like the way that man looks at Alfiva,” the tomte reiterated. Despite its bluster, the tomte had come to care deeply for the child in the years since it came into the family’s service. “There’s bad blood there.”
Björg almost laughed. Oh, good Tomte, you have no idea! the Ælv thought.
“He drinks too much,” the creature continued. “It’s probably only by the All Father’s grace that Unna still sleeps at Alfiva’s side. If that man lays a hand on either of my girls I just might have to intervene.”
His words caused Björg to jerk her head up sharply to look at him. It was unheard of for a tomte to speak of interferring in his master’s business in the manner he described unless provoked. And raising a hand to the womenfolk in the family was not a usually a source of provocation in such a male dominated society.
“Don’t look at me like that,” the tomte snapped. His dark eyes glinted like black ice. “I only adopted the mother and child. You never said anything about surly forest wreckers.”
There wasn’t much Björg could say to that.
“Keep watching,” she instructed, needlessly so. The Ælv was only able to tear herself away reluctantly. What she wouldn’t give to be able to spend the entire day watching Alfiva at play.
Björg wasn’t gone long when the woodsman trudged into the clearing. He glared at Alfiva, but didn’t approach, taking a circuitous route around the child. Alfiva, for her part, grew still and watched the big man pass, her blue eyes round as saucers. She watched him intently, her gaze boring into the backs of his shoulder blades. The woodsman felt is skin crawl and quickened his pace.
“It’s okay, Papa,” the girl called. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
With a snarl the woodsman wrenched the cottage door open and threw himself inside, leaving Alfiva alone in the yard with her cricket and the tomte. Shouting ensued on the far side of the door. Alfiva’s face fell, and she turned her attention back to the cricket.
Worried and torn, the tomte glanced between Alfiva and the cottage. Deciding that Alfiva was safely occupied with the cricket, the tomte scurried down from the tree and crossed the clearing to his favorite entry-window. He was so distracted with worry for Unna he didn’t even notice Alfiva’s eyes following him across the yard.
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